Cut out paper dolls and a tree

Historical residential institutions

This volume examines what we learned about survivors’ experiences of, and institutional responses to, child sexual abuse in residential institutions such as children’s homes, missions, reformatories and hospitals during the period spanning post-World War II to 1990.


We were sad lonely kids torn away from our family and did no one any harm. We should have been cared for and shown compassion for whatever reason we were unable to stay safe with our family. We had no safety net and would have been terrified to tell anyone.[1]

Every person, from family, from relatives, to professionals that I went and asked for help not only didn’t give me the help, they put me in a worse situation … How can a child be protected if the adults and the professionals choose to ignore the abuse?[2]

Volume 11 presents an overview of survivors’ experiences of child sexual abuse in historical residential institutions. In this volume, we use the term ‘historical’ to describe residential institutions in which children were placed from post–World War II to 1990. By 1990 many residential institutions had closed, although some groups of children continued to be placed in large residential settings after this time.

This volume brings together survivors’ accounts from private sessions, written accounts, findings from public hearings and research to document survivors’ experiences of sexual abuse in historical residential institutions. Although many of these institutions have closed, we acknowledge that for many survivors of child sexual abuse in these institutions, the impacts remain current.

Understanding the history of children’s residential institutions, where governments, institutions and individuals failed in their duty of care to protect children has driven some of the reforms of Australia’s out-of-home care system.

The latter half of the 20th century saw significant changes to the systems and models of residential care in Australia. Until the 1960s, Australia often relied on large residential institutions to accommodate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children forcibly removed from their families, child migrants, wards of the state, orphans and other children.[3]

Multiple previous inquiries – including those focusing on the experiences of the Stolen Generations, Former Child Migrants and Forgotten Australians – have outlined the harsh conditions for children and the abuse of power by authorities in many historical residential institutions.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have been forcibly separated from their families since the first days of European colonisation of Australia.[4] Governments in most Australian states and territories assumed legal guardianship over Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, with control over where a child lived, education, training and work placements. States had their own legislation but the effects were broadly similar in terms of the tragic intergenerational consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The exact number of children removed is unknown.

Commissioned research traces the complexity of historical policies and social attitudes and draws implications for contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The research concludes that while all children in institutions are vulnerable to child sexual abuse, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children experience increased vulnerability.

Child migrants

While the precise number of child migrants sent to Australia during the 20th century is unknown, approximately 3,000 to 3,500 children were sent under approved schemes during the post-war period and a similar number before the war.[5]

In 2001 the Lost Innocents: Righting the record – Report on child migration (Lost Innocents) detailed the widespread abuse of child migrants in Australia and noted the ‘complete disregard for the needs, the safety and wellbeing of many child migrants’.[6]

Forgotten Australians

It is estimated that over half a million children experienced institutional and other out-of-home ‘care’ in Australia during the 20th century. In 2004 Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional and out-of-home care as children outlined what the Senate Community Affairs References Committee had heard through hundreds of submissions from people who spent time in such institutional care. ‘Their stories outlined a litany of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and often criminal physical and sexual assault. Their stories also told of neglect, humiliation and deprivation of food, education and healthcare.’[7]

Children with disability

Many children with disability were placed in disability-specific institutions as part of a parallel system of care. They were often housed with adults with intellectual disability and mental illness in the same large hospital-style institutions.

A series of government reports starting in the late 1970s found that disability programs were lacking and there were negative effects from separating people with disability from the wider community. Commissioned research noted that these reports frequently recommended that institutions for the psychiatrically ill and developmentally disabled be progressively closed and be replaced with integrated community services. The transition away from residential care occurred much later for children with disability than for other children, and many children with disability continued to be housed in large-scale residential institutions well into the 1980s and early 1990s.

[3] The Forgotten Australians report states: ‘Upwards of, and possibly more than 500 000 Australians experienced care in an orphanage, Home or other form of out-of-home care during the last century. As many of these people have had a family it is highly likely that every Australian either was, is related to, works with or knows someone who experienced childhood in an institution or out of home care environment’. Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional out-of-home care as children, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, ACT, 2004, p xv.
[4] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing them home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, Commonwealth of Australia, Sydney, 1997, p 27.
[5] Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, Lost Innocents: Righting the record - report on child migration, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2001, pp 69–70.
[6] Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, Lost Innocents: Righting the record - report on child migration, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2001, Prologue, p 13.
[7] Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, ACT, 2004, p xv.

Historical residential institutions fulfilled different and sometimes conflicting functions in the care of children, which often varied across jurisdictions. The main institution types covered in this volume include missions, orphanages, children’s homes, youth detention and mental hospitals, psychiatric facilities and disability institutions.

In practice, children with disability, children with mental health and behavioural concerns, and children convicted of criminal offences were often housed alongside children who had been removed from their parents for other reasons, some of whom were at risk within their family of origin.

Between May 2013 and May 2017, 6,875 people came forward and told their stories of sexual abuse to one or more Commissioners during a private session. Over one-third (35.9 per cent) of these survivors described abuse in an historical residential institution.

Survivors in private sessions who described abuse in an historical residential institution were most often male (61.8 per cent), and over one in five (22.2 per cent) identified as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivor. Most survivors (57.8 per cent) were aged between 40 and 60 years of age when they attended their private session, and almost half (45.1 per cent) said they were first abused between 1950 and 1969.

Most survivors who told us they were sexually abused in an historical residential institution said their childhoods were marked by trauma, brutality and violence. Many survivors described being physically and emotionally abused, and as a result carried lifelong physical and mental scars. They said that as children in youth detention, mental health institutions and reception centres they were often subjected to strip searches, which many found humiliating and intimidating. Many survivors said they were frightened by seeing other children beaten or suddenly go missing.

Some survivors described experiences of sexual abuse carried out under the guise of medical practices, commonly conducted without consent. Other survivors described the misuse of medication and medical procedures in historical residential institutions.

Many survivors said they had to work at the institutions, including farm work and caring for other children. We heard that many children in historical residential institutions did not have any real education and instead were put to physical labour. Some survivors said they were abused when they were sent out to work on farms or as domestic workers.

Characteristics of residential institutions that increased children’s vulnerability to abuse

Aspects of historical residential institutions’ culture, day-to-day operations and environmental features all contributed to children’s vulnerability to sexual abuse by adults and other children. In particular, many historical residential institutions operated as ‘total institutions’. Total institutions are those that:

  • are made up of staff and ‘inmates’, where inmates are the children living in the institution
  • exert nearly complete control over all aspects of the inmates’ (that is, children’s) lives
  • amplify staff members’ control over inmates by imposing rigid rules and procedures
  • have, as a principal objective, the transformation of human beings (for example, transforming convicted youth into model prisoners and ultimately into model citizens).

Aspects of institutional culture may also have directly or indirectly enabled child sexual abuse by endorsing abusive behaviours or preventing children from disclosing abuse.
These include cultures:

  • of secrecy and isolation from the outside world, where systems and processes are hidden from external view
  • that do not listen to or value children, such as those that endorse the belief that ‘children should be seen and not heard’, that support high power differentials between staff and children, and that believe physical discipline and corporal punishment have a moral and educative role in children’s lives
  • where physical and emotional abuse and neglect towards children is normalised
  • that treat children as inferior to staff, such as by referring to children by number rather than name, calling children offensive names, not allowing children to talk with one another and isolating children from others.

Operational aspects of historical residential institutions may also have increased opportunities for child sexual abuse. Adults in positions of authority and trust, and especially those responsible for maintaining discipline and control, may have responded in abusive ways to the power and control offered to them as part of their role. Many historical residential institutions controlled children’s access to people outside the institution, and some children, including Former Child Migrants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, were prevented from accessing potentially protective adults. Many survivors told us that their sense of isolation, loss and trauma was compounded by being prohibited from contact with siblings, even where they were housed in the same institution.

We heard that in some institutions interactions between adults and children, as well as between children, were inadequately supervised, allowing abuse to occur unseen.
In other cases, authorities with oversight of institutions did not supervise institutions effectively or ignored evidence of abuse and neglect.

Environmental and situational aspects of institutions may also have increased children’s vulnerability to abuse. Children were sometimes placed in institutions based on the availability of places, with little consideration for the suitability and safety of the institution for the individual child. In these contexts, children were sometimes abused by other children with harmful sexual behaviours.

At the time of the abuse

Many survivors abused in historical residential institutions said they tried to disclose the abuse at the time. They were often accused of telling lies or punished, and the abuse continued. Some said they were made to feel as if they were the instigator of the sexual abuse rather than the victim. Others said they were labelled as bad or morally deficient.

We often heard that staff in historical residential institutions overlooked signs of child sexual abuse, including injury and pregnancy. Many survivors said they felt they could not trust the police to respond appropriately to their childhood disclosures.

Survivors often told us that along with disclosures of sexual abuse being disbelieved or ignored, some alleged perpetrators were allowed continued access to children. We regularly heard that staff in historical residential institutions were not trained in child protection, and that many institutions lacked basic processes and checks to ensure people wanting to work at the organisation were suitable for child-related work.

We heard that reporting of allegations of sexual abuse to police by authorities in historical residential institutions was generally inconsistent and ad hoc. Institutions often lacked policies and procedures for reporting allegations to police when the allegations related to staff. External authorities often did not act on reports of child sexual abuse at historical residential institutions, despite receiving official confirmation of abuse.

After the abuse

Many survivors of abuse in historical residential institutions said they waited until adulthood to tell others of the abuse. Many survivors who disclosed as adults to the police found the process difficult and retraumatising. Some survivors would not report the abuse to police because their interactions with police as children had been negative. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survivors’ relationships with police have been affected by past racist policies. Other survivors said they were frustrated by the high threshold of evidence needed to pursue prosecution. Some survivors said they felt their allegations were taken seriously by police, but that the process of making a report and the subsequent court processes and outcome affected their wellbeing.

Few survivors told us they had found the process of government or religious institution based redress schemes satisfying, respectful or supportive. Many found the process of applying to redress schemes difficult and lacking in transparency. Financial compensation through redress schemes received a mixed response by survivors. Some appreciated the money they received but many felt it could never compensate for the suffering they had endured.

Some survivors had taken part in legal action against the institution. Most said the process had been difficult, and some said the action had not brought the resolution they had hoped for.

This volume presents an overview of survivors’ experiences. Survivors’ suggestions for the future are echoed in recommendations in other volumes of the Final Report including, Volume 8, Record keeping and information sharing, Volume 9, Advocacy, support and therapeutic treatment services, Volume 12, Contemporary out-of-home care, Volume 15, Contemporary detention environments and the Redress and civil litigation and Criminal justice reports. Responses to our issues papers from advocacy and support groups including the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, Care Leavers Australasia Network and Child Migrants Trust further support survivors’ suggestions noted in this volume.

Many survivors of abuse in historical residential institutions had views of how children should be cared for and how they could be protected from abuse. They repeatedly said that children needed someone to act in their best interests and advocate on their behalf, and that this was especially important for children and young people who were away from their families. Survivors said children needed more support as they transitioned from out-of-home care into living in the community, and that children and the wider community needed a better understanding of behaviours that constituted child sexual abuse. Many survivors said that institutions needed to focus more on employing appropriate people to work with children in care. Some called for better monitoring, screening, training and ongoing supervision of adults looking after children in care.

Survivors of abuse in historical residential institutions also told us about the support they need now and in the future. Many survivors called for better access to medical and dental care, mental health services and housing. Many survivors said they needed support to access their records and information, including information about their birth families. Some said they struggled with parenting and relationships and needed extra support, and that the legacy of intergenerational trauma affected their relationships with others and their ability to parent. Survivors often said their life outcomes had been affected by the poor quality of education they received while in institutions and that they needed support to gain skills, including literacy, and access to employment.

Many survivors discussed the need for appropriate redress for what had happened to them. Survivors said redress schemes needed to acknowledge the trauma of children who had been sexually abused in institutions, and noted the importance of recognising and remembering what had happened in a way that would help child sexual abuse survivors in the future. They wanted redress schemes to be straightforward, and for institutions and those responsible for the abuse to bear the cost. They wanted the process for determining the amount of compensation to be transparent and fair. Other survivors suggested memorials and official days to remember survivors and victims of child sexual abuse.

Many survivors said they feared the possibility of re-entering institutional care as an older person. They were concerned the abuse would be repeated in institutional aged care. Survivors wanted the aged care system to be sensitive to their childhood experiences and some felt that survivors should be better supported to live in the community as they aged.

Survivors of abuse in historical residential institutions often told us about their hopes for the future. They told us they wanted children now to be protected from sexual abuse. They said they wanted their stories of childhood to be believed and respected, and to be treated with dignity as they aged. Survivors often talked about the things that brought them peace, joy and happiness, such as work and spending time with children and grandchildren.

[1] Name changed, private session, ‘Lela’.
[2] Name changed, private session, ‘Lisa Michelle’.

Content updating Updating complete